It’s a safe bet that on any given day in Hollywood, the studios are awash in litigation. No major business can function without frequenting the court system now and again. Sure, we always hear about the stars that find themselves knee deep in no good, a tabloid mandated trip into rehab preventing the swift hammer of justice from marking them with that professionally inconvenient criminal record. Heck, Harvey Levin wouldn’t have a lifestyle without them (in either of his so called careers). No, the rarity is the blazing of big guns, company vs. company, usually complaining about money, who made it, and how it was managed. Since most of Hollywood is run by bean counters, business school graduates, and their JD partners in pilfering, actual lawsuits tend to be few and far between.
But within the last month, Tinsel Town has been rocked by three rather high profile civil hissy fits - which, again, isn’t all that unusual. The intricacy of any international commerce basically demands it. But in all three cases, the issue under contention seems like one the parties should have worked out long before a visit to the clerk of the court. It’s hard to imagine that these people get paid what they do and yet fail to cross such “T"s and dot such dollar intensive “I"s. Of course, no one can predict every facet of a major deal. Sometimes, unseen aftershocks can result from such seismic financial matters. But in the case of The Watchmen, Tommy Lee Jones, and Disturbia proceedings, bad things do occasionally happen to powerbrokers.
Looking at the most recent pleading first, it was only a matter of time before the Shia LeBouf hit was called out for the Rear Window rip it appears to be. After all, substitute Jimmy Stewart for the aforementioned rising young star, Raymond Burr for David Morse, and a proto-Pinkberry suburb for a metropolitan apartment building courtyard, and you’ve seen either effort. So when the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust, owner of the rights to the 1942 short story “Murder From A Fixed Viewpoint” by Cornell Woolrich tagged Dreamworks, Viacom, Paramount, NBC, Universal, producer Stephen Spielberg, and anyone else with blockbuster-imbued deep pockets, it was less of a matter of “WHAT?” and more of “what took you so long?”
There’s no denying the similarities between the properties. While Disturbia could never be taken for Hitchcock’s classic suspense thriller, that’s really not the issue. Mining the same subject matter or source is SOP for the studios. No, what the lawyers for the late Abend contend is that Universal (specifically) has a long established pattern of ignoring their ownership of the property. Hitchcock and company did gain the proper permissions, but the planned DVD release from a few years back was delayed when the Trust had to, once again, thrust themselves into the process to protect their rights. While it may seem like nitpicking, the difference is very clear. Those representing Abend aren’t angry that Disturbia resembles “Murder from a Fixed Viewpoint” - they are pissed that no one told them that the work would again become the basis of a new film.
Of course, this is why the case winds up in court. Someone suggests that a film follows the pattern of a source they own. Another says it was an original effort. Disturbia‘s reliance on the plot contrivances of “Murder” make for a strong case of copycatting. But is it fair to fault someone for merely being inspired by another work. Movies have long “borrowed” content, from directorial homages to outright steals. But the case the Trust will have to make is that Disturbia is SO similar to Murder that it might as well be the same thing. Without the story available to base an opinion on, one has to imagine that the big wigs will take this matter all the way to the bar - unless, of course, a few mill will make it all go away.
That seems to be the case with Tommy Lee Jones, who recently filed suit against the producer of No Country for Old Men for breach of contract and close to $10 million dollars in allegedly owed back end money. According to published reports, the Oscar winner took legal action when his claim for his agreed upon bonus was negated by those in power. They argued that a renegotiation and a misunderstanding over document language prevents the payment. Seems somewhere in the morass of legalese and micromanaged mumbo jumbo that comes with hiring and firing talent, the studio suggests Jones waived his right to said cash. Of course, if the original contract and the new one under contention are both signed, sealed, and delivered, the plaintiffs are going to have to prove fraud. Stop laughing - it’s not necessarily a given in La-La land.
It’s obvious that both of these cases hinged on box office success and the availability of certain amounts of money. No one would be suing the Disturbia gang if it had made Bangkok Dangerous dollars over its theatrical run. But when it comes to the most highly contested lawsuit to hit the wires, we are dealing with potential, not pat results. For decades, fans have been wondering if Alan Moore’s award winning graphic novel, Watchmen, would ever make it to the silver screen. Crammed with a clever combination of social satire, old school comics characterization, and the British author’s cutthroat commentary, it long stood as the Holy Grail of potential cinematic skyrockets. Over the years, several filmmakers have famously failed to realize their goal of giving this project life. As recently as two years ago, it looked like it would never get the greenlight.
Then Zack Snyder went and turned Frank Miller’s Spartan spectacle 300 into one of the most buzzed about films of the last five years, and in combination with his success circa the Dawn of the Dead remake, he had enough commercial carte blanche to make whatever movie he wanted. Watchmen was it. As geek nation looked on with suspicion and overbearing scrutiny, Snyder went about his business. Last month, he unveiled a trailer and some clips at Comic-Con to much fanfare, and uber-nerd Kevin Smith even got a sneak peek of the entire project. His verdict - it more than lives up to the source material. Along with his love of the new JJ Abrams Star Trek take, the Clerks commander has already confirmed that Watchmen is great.
Naturally, Warner Brothers was ecstatic. Having coughed up the cash to make this risky title, they were happy to hear that early talk was so outwardly positive. Then Fox stepped in and spoiled their giddy good time. Suggesting that they had first right to any Watchmen work, they marched out a supposed standing agreement with producer Larry Gordon, arguing that for the last 17 years, they owned the ability to make the movie. While it would be nice to claim that Fox was merely coat tailing the Comic-Con success, the studio actually filed their lawsuit seven months ago. It simply took until this amount of time for the judge to rule on a Motion to Dismiss by Warners (he denied it).
Still, the case raises interesting questions about timing, talent, and how both are mismanaged and manipulated by individuals desperate to keep their careers intact. If Fox is right, and Gordon agreed to make his Watchmen with them involved, then Warners wasted a whole lot of cash on a movie that will garner them very little. In the end, they will have taken the risk while another reaps part or all of the rewards. On the other hand, if Fox is flawed in its understanding, if they really don’t have the rock solid stance reports suggest, then they are clearly blackmailing Warners for being themselves too weak kneed to make their own version. While it’s always about money (and Watchmen appears poised to make oodles), this could be a clear case of what lawyers like to call “legal nuisance”. Both sides might be willing to work out a financial settlement to make it all go away.
But again, it seems strange that a finished film with almost seven months to go before hitting theaters (Watchmen bows in March 2009) would be worth such a snit. Imagine what will happen if Smith is wrong, and Snyder delivers a bomb instead of a box office hit. Will Fox be foaming then? Similarly, had No Country for Old Men been a typical Coen Brothers effort - critically lauded but commercially inert - would Jones be jockeying for his so-called cut? At least the Disturbia case turns on something more solid than cash - though financial payback is the only means of addressing a violated copyright. If anything, all three cases show that Hollywood occasionally trips over its own ambitions in pursuit of payment. Apparently, cash is the only cure for the ‘Sue Me, Sue You’ blues.